Rediscovering Leon Russell’s Country Alter-Ego, Hank Wilson
With his genre-defying catalog of music, the late Leon Russell always incorporated elements of rock, pop, country, blues, gospel and folk. In today’s musical landscape, he’d be an Americana tastemaker, cranking out solid albums and piling up awards nominations without much promise of radio airplay. Yet in a day and age when rock stars roamed the land, Russell struck commercial gold time and time again without adhering to just one popular style.
Despite Russell’s penchant for unpredictability, even his trusting fans might’ve been caught off guard when the Oklahoma native changed his sound -- and his name -- for the 1973 album Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. I. Under this alias, Russell tipped his hat to other Hanks (Snow, Thompson and Williams) with classic country covers and reinterpretations of bluegrass standards.
To honor his source material and put together a hot country band, Russell visited Owen Bradley’s storied Music City recording studio, Bradley’s Barn. A who’s-who of Nashville session musicians pitched in, including bassist Bob Moore, fiddler Johnny Gimble, harmonica player Charlie McCoy, steel guitarist Pete Drake and others commonly listed in the liner notes of your favorite country albums from the 1960s and ‘70s. J.J. Cale, a fellow Americana forefather known for writing Eric Clapton hits “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” appears as a session player and a co-producer.
Russell and company covered standards by Hank Williams (“Lost Highway,” “Jambalaya”), Jimmie Rodgers (“In the Jailhouse Now”), George Jones (“She Thinks I Still Care”) and other key figures in the commercial growth of country music. More notably, the Hank Wilson persona cut a rollicking rockabilly rendition of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” a Flatt & Scruggs favorite and Buck Owens hit.
Regardless of its limited chart success, Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. I deserves credit for making country music even more accessible to the same long-haired rockers and folkies who’d tepidly given the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1971 opus Will the Circle Be Unbroken a spin.
Russell revisited his country alter-ego for 1984's Hank Wilson, Vol. II. Standout tracks on this lesser-known yet solid album include an interpretation of “Wabash Cannonball” featuring duet partner Willie Nelson and a version of Ray Price’s “Heartaches By the Numbers” that sounds like it belongs on a crackling 78 RPM slab instead of a forgotten ‘80s album.
In 1998, Russell paid tribute to the late Owen Bradley with Legend in my Time (Hank Wilson, Vol. III). This time around, a new crew of country purists, including mandolin picker Marty Stuart and harmonica player-for-hire Mickey Raphael, helped bring new life to hits from the '60s by Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline and others.
The fourth and final album bearing the name of Hank Wilson, Rhythm & Bluegrass, reconnected Russell with his former backing band, Newgrass Revival. For his swan song, Hank sang bluegrass covers of the Beatles and Ray Charles, and delved further into Lester Flatts’ legacy as a guitarist and vocalist.
All four volumes of the Hank Wilson series have aged beautifully, but Vol. I specifically claims a special place in the history of country and rock crossovers. At a time when long hair on men was still taboo in Nashville and country gatekeepers rarely treated musical outsiders hospitably, Russell helped knock down some important pre-outlaw doors in 1973 with a persona well-versed in the past yet well before his time.
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